Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Pickett Furniture: An artisan at Pier 41

While IKEA's blue box on the Brooklyn waterfront gets the most attention of any local furniture store, respect and attention should be given to the multitude of truly local designers that create their pieces by hand with thought, love, and care, using only the highest quality elements. Pickett Furniture, located at Pier 41 in Red Hook, is one such company. Check out our interview below with the owner, Jeremy Pickett, to find out his approach to furniture making and life in Red Hook and the Columbia Waterfront as a designer.

WoCS: How did you get into the furniture business?
PF: My first job in the furniture business was my first summer in college. I spent the summer living with my dad, who had arranged an entry level job at a local construction company. I think his plan was for me to learn the value of an education as a means of avoiding a life of manual labor. Ironically, it was that summer job and not my political science classes that have provided more job training. After college, I moved to Chicago and worked in several different positions within the music industry. This eventually led me to New York to start a music promotion company focusing on sending tour promotion and licensing in Japan. And to help pay my East Village apartment rent, I fell back on my hand skills and took a part time job working for a cabinet maker in Dumbo. Fast forward a couple years and I had grown disillusioned and tired of the music business (mainly being out at a club in Nebraska at 4:00 in the morning) and I knew I needed a second career. By this time, my wife and I were living in a townhouse in Chelsea that we owned and the building had several rental apartments that we were constantly fixing up and repairing DIY in our free time. And it came that I much preferred this work to my day job, so I found an apprenticeship with a cabinetmaking shop in Jersey City. At that stage, I could comprehend a Home Depot fix-it-yourself book, but I knew I needed to hone my skills if I wanted to make this a profession. And from Jersey City, I found work as a shop manager and designer in Greenpoint, which led to a job with furniture maker in Bushwick, which led to another furniture maker in Williamsburg. I was accumulating all this different experience and staying in the shops nights and weekends building personal projects for myself, because none of these shops wanted me to use chisels/hand planes, or pursue Japanese-style joinery. Rightfully so, when you are someone else's dime, my bosses wanted me to build whatever furniture I was assigned as quickly as possible. So learning to make 'slow' furniture (to borrow a phrase from the food industry) was something that was self-taught. A couple years ago, I finally had the resources to open my own shop (after we sold the Manhattan townhouse) and moved to Red Hook.

WoCS: What attracts you to working with wood and what is your favorite type?
PF: This is the part where I can start to sound like a hippy, so I will try to skim over the new age beliefs a bit and say I love working with natural materials from the earth. Spending my day looking at raw wood and slabs that came from the trees, smelling the wood as its cut (each species has its distinct scent) is a great escape right here in the middle of this urban environment we all live in. I love working with walnut. Walnut has great workability, by that I mean walnut sands easily and doesn't chip or splinter like some other species. Walnut also has great figure and I think it shows really well. I try to make all my showroom pieces out of walnut (although everything I make is available in any species a client requests).

WoCS: Where do you get your wood and other materials?
PF: This is the other reason I love working with walnut. All the walnut (and cherry) I use comes from a small family farm in Delaware, so whenever I make a new piece I get to drive two and a half hours south and hand select the walnut from a barn in the woods. I love the opportunity to get out on the road, walk the the woods and finding the lumber direct from the land that the trees had grown up on. I love being able to pass along the story onto clients, saying that I can almost pinpoint the exact location on this earth that their dining table or dresser came from. I had a special project last year where I built a kitchen for a loft renovation here in Red Hook and every single board in the kitchen came from the same tree. It's as if we are able to give the tree a second life. As I type some of this I am coming to the realization the Shel Silverstein book, The Giving Tree, my mother used to read to me when I was little has had a profound influence on my career.

WoCS: We notice on your site that you have a green philosophy. Could you summarize it for our readers?
PF: Our green philosophy is based on how to apply a sustainable lifestyle to our products. We aim to use local resources (lumber from the East Coast) and, again to borrow a phrase from the food industry, "farm to table" furniture. When we have used exotic species, such as teak, we have made sure our source of teak or mahogany comes from a responsible and sustainable supplier. Our studio line furniture is finished with oils and poly by hand vs. spray finishing that occurs in 95% of furniture manufacturing. When we make a product that requires a more commercial finish, we source our finishing to Surface Environment, a green spray finishing business in Bushwick. There are a few commercial spraying outfits in Brooklyn/Queens and a majority of this places use very potent lacquers, are poorly ventilated, and are just environmental hazards. Surface Environment are devoted to water-based finishes with low-voc outputs. And this is important as the kitchens/vanities/millwork in most homes are off gassing imperceptible toxins and using Surface Environment eliminates the majority of this risk to families. We also apply the term 'heirloom' green to our furniture as it is our hope the furniture we make is made and designed well enough that it is eventually passed along to future generations as an heirloom. I get really depressed whenever I see mass market furniture tossed onto the sidewalk when someone moves out of an apartment and the furniture is deemed to low quality to not be worth moving but simply replaced with more low quality furniture in the new apartment.


WoCS: How has this green philosophy served your business? Do you feel that people are drawn to your work because of it?
PF: I'm not sure of any particular case where I have had a client find me specifically because of our green approach, but I know clients are always appreciative of our methods after the fact once they have learned the extra steps we have taken into the manufacture of their furniture. I have a problem with a lot of mass market 'green' products as I feel many of these companies are a bit disingenuous. To me, having your furniture made in a factory in China, prepackaged in foam/cardboard/shrinkwrap and shipped to a warehouse in New Jersey and then trucked to your home via the ground shipping industry, is a far cry from being green, regardless if the Canadian Maple or Baltic Birch plywood (which first must be shipped to China) is glued together with low-formaldehyde glue. The offset of using low-voc glue pales in comparison to the pollution and oil used to get the product to market. But companies market new products like this as green just about every day.

WoCS: What is your favorite piece of furniture at home?
PF: A lot of our home furniture are antiques, and my favorite one of those may be the Japanese Altar table that we use as a media cabinet. Our television rests on top of it with the remote controls in the drawers. The only piece we have at home that I made is our coffee table. It used to seem like every time we had a guest over they would ask me if we had anything I had made and I would forever have to sheepishly say "no". Finally, I made a coffee table for ourselves.


WoCS: What are your primary sources of inspiration in making your pieces?
PF: I like the conflict/resolution in my designs of minimalism vs. traditional. I try to create minimal lines in the design and concept and then refer to Japanese carpentry and joinery and see how I can make these designs happen with just the strength of wood joints. George Nakashima is of course a major inspiration. I also love, love, love the furniture of Christian Liaigre. I like the work of the Los Angeles architects of the 30s and 40s - Schindler, Lautner, Nuetra, and Jones. I love the workmanship and the understated beauty of the Arts and Crafts movement. And I'm also influenced by my contemporaries here in New York in the present. I think we are lucky to work and live in a time when furniture design and manufacturing has such a strong local presence.

WoCS: If you could furnish the home of any famous person, who it would be and what would you design for them?
PF: One of the first jobs I had as an apprentice was installing some outdoor furniture and flower boxes for Billy Crystal. As you walked into his apartment, he had an antique woodworkers bench as an entry table and on it were a few yellowed baseballs. I assumed that these were priceless home run balls from Yankee history, such as Roger Maris' 61st homer or something. I never had to the nerve to ask him for fear he would think I would try to steal them. But I stared at them constantly while working in his apartment. I've made a few more pieces for celebrities over the years and the experience is generally pretty cool, especially if you are a fan of their art. If I could ring anyone up and make them my client, I think it would have to be Neil Young. I can't think of anyone else I'd rather meet. And it would have to be a chair. Our most personal relationships with furniture are with chairs.

WoCS: You recently participated in the Architectural Digest Home Design Show. Tell us a little about that and what the trade show side of the business is like for a furniture maker.
PF: The trade shows are great for business. It's the best way to introduce your product and have one on one conversations with potential clients. It's one thing to see images of your work on websites and quite another to touch and feel and sit in the furniture. Being that our showroom is in a second story warehouse on a pier out in Red Hook, its not the most accessible place for people to drop by. So the trade shows make it easier for me to reach new clients and run into and see old clients as well. It's nice for me because it provides a different environment than the one of seclusion that I have built for myself out here on the waterfront.

WoCS: What made you choose Red Hook as a location for your business?
PF: I hate to let the word get out, but Red Hook is the best place on earth. Seriously. When we left Manhattan, we rented an apartment in Carroll Gardens for awhile. I found a workshop to share just across the BQE on Van Brunt Street. When I lived in Manhattan, I was always doing the reverse commute working in Brooklyn and I've always wanted to be able to walk to work. That was the dream. I loved crossing the BQE n the mornings and entering the Columbia Street District into what I viewed as our secret neighborhood. Then last year, we moved into a larger workshop down on Pier 41 which allowed me to have a private office and showroom. It wasn't too long after moving to Carroll Gardens that we decided to buy an apartment in the Columbia Street District. We spend 90% of our time in the neighborhood now and I love the waterfront. I love feeling the breeze off the water, the sunsets, and the smell of the saltwater. When we lived in Chelsea we were surrounded by the subways and commuters and walking our dogs or pushing our baby's stroller became such a chore fighting the crowds on the sidewalk. We love were we are now with the wide open sidewalks and neighborly feel of the streets.

WoCS: What about the neighborhood is good for furniture makers and woodworkers in general? There are certainly a good number here.
PF: The zoning regulations certainly help. Manufacturing zones are shrinking all around us, especially over in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. The manufacturing in DUMBO has all but disappeared. Surprisingly, people don't like to live above or next to businesses that run loud machinery. And the lack of subway has helped keep the prices of real estate down. I've worked in a few different neighborhoods and this one is my favorite by far. I've also noticed that there isn't a sense of 'let's change this neighborhood into condos and bars scene'. I think maybe through natural selection that the residents of Red Hook are just cooler about manufacturing in their neighborhood. I can only guess, but I think a large portion of residents live and work in the neighborhood and there is a strong sense of self preservation to keeping the neighborhood the way it is and providing manufacturing jobs for local residents.
WoCS: What are your favorite hangouts in the area?
PF: Fairway! It's so convenient working right next door to the best grocery store in the city. We have lunch there a few times a week. Defonte's makes the best sandwiches hands down. We love the food options on our side of the highway. Hope and Anchor and Fort Defiance are other regular lunch spots. The savory pastries (especially the cauliflower turnover) at Baked are delicious. I love that Calexico opened up in the neighborhood and even more they seem to have a personal connection to the band, Calexico who are one of my favorites. One of these days I want to throw a Calexico themed party with Calexico catering and the band Calexico playing. When we don't feel like cooking, we order delivery regularly from Teeda and Kotobuki. And the Good Fork is great when we have a babysitter. I think the only food we travel across the BQE for is fresh fish from Fish Tails.

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